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As I sit here on Christmas morning at Novotel hotel in Ha Long Bay there are many thoughts and experiences that I have had during my first week in Vietnam. I would have liked to share these earlier, but we have had a busy itinerary and it's been hard to keep up! Many thanks to the Vu family who have welcomed me into their home and kept me fed with a marathon of food every meal. Also many thanks for showing me new and exciting cultural experiences daily.
First, I'd like to mention the weather in Northern Vietnam this time of year. Vietnam lies around 10 and 25 degrees north latitude, with Hanoi being 21. Contrary to what I had thought, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay are not hot, but mild, even chilly at night. During the winter one can expect rain from time to time making it even colder, but luckily we have had only sunny weather. The temperatures in the day have averaged 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and night time lows are around 50.
One busy day we headed across Hanoi to Tuan's aunt and uncle's house for an amazing lunch. The occasion was to welcome Tuan and Linh back home as they spent most of the year in the United States and also celebrating the extended family being together. This includes Tuan and Linh's grandmother and their granduncle who also live permanently in the home. Their uncle is an architect and their home is very nice, including a 3 story atrium with large skylight over the kitchen. It is about the same width as Tuan's family home, and has many similarities in layout. The home has many bedrooms and what were once bedrooms for the kids are now bedrooms for the grandparents. In Vietnamese culture, care for aging family is at home by the oldest son. This respect for the elderly is a very noble aspect within the Vietnamese culture.
In addition to lunch, we were also visiting so that the Vu family as a whole could pay respects to their late grandfather on their mothers side who passed away in the spring of 2012. Today is the first time the extended family has been together since so these prayers are due. This took place in the altar room on the top floor of the home. The altar room has many windows which are opened to allow the burning of incense during prayer to slowly escape. The room has a metal ceiling, slightly blackened with years of use above the multiple incense pots. There are many flowers, candles and decorations around the altar and incense sticks from months of use are still present in the pots full of sand.
Already in a week I have seen multiple occasions of praying for those who are no longer in this life and am learning the factors behind when these respects are given. As I understand it these times are when everyone is together such as today, but also on the anniversary of a loved one's death. The Vietnamese celebrate the day of one's death because it is an absolutely clearly defined moment in time. To them, celebrating the beginning of life is not as precisely defined. Timing in their culture is very important and each year, day, hour, minute, and second mean something new and there are opportunities related to each individuals Vietnamese Zodiac animal and the lunar moon that must be taken. Before arriving to this house today, we were in a rush related to timing, and gathered different types of fruits, sticky rice, candles and other gifts quickly to be offered in prayer for their grandfather on the other side. These goods were placed around the altar in odd numbered quantities and were offered to the grandfather in his after life as well as blessed in the process. During the time of prayer, many incense sticks were lit by each and set around a picture of their grandfather - again in odd quantities - usually 5 from each person. After prayer, and the incense burning completely, we packed up the gifts said thanks and goodbye to their aunt and uncle.
Next we headed to the cemetery to continue paying respects where grandpa's ashes are kept. The cemetery is laid out with a reflection pond upon entry and exit and has many traditional and symmetrical, 2 story open air structures. Each structure contains multiple rooms, and in each room there are stacked compartments 360 degrees around containing ashes of the deceased. Once again, the goods were spread around their grandfather's area and praying was with incense. This time I participated and offered incense. Later that day we consumed the blessed food gifts offered up in prayer to their grandfather.
The cemetery also had a fire pit nearby. Another interesting religious belief is to offer money, clothing, and other gifts for grandpa to use in his life on the other side by burning paper replicas of life's necessities. We offered these necessary items, including American $100 bills and large bills of Vietnamese currency called Dong by tossing them into the fire pit. Although looking genuine, each of these are made out of a light tissue paper and burn quickly without too much smoke.
Another interesting and new experience I've had is simply being outside and observing the TRAFFIC!
Traffic in Hanoi appears completely wild at first but their is an order that I am coming to learn. The lines in the middle of the road are completely ignored for the most part, and when you consider traffic on the shoulder of the road, there are sometimes 4 lanes flowing in an American 2 lane road width or less. For the most part traffic is two lanes, however on the shoulders of the road their are often bicycles, mopeds and pedestrians going against, meaning the 4 traffic flows alternate. Often a sidewalk is filled with outdoor seating to a restaurant or packed with moped parking so pedestrians need to walk around by entering the street. This, combined with many intersections without signals or people simply ignoring signals, makes for some really interesting intersections. As a pedestrian, the key to safe crossing (which many do at any point along the road) is keeping your intentions clear with a consistent walking speed. Exception to this are cars, trucks, buses, and other large vehicles. These are king of the road, and if you encounter one halfway through crossing the street, you most often have to stop. I am sure there are many sad accidents with this approach, but I recognize the extreme efficiency of it with 90% of people on mopeds and seldom stoppages. From above traffic flows like water and I am surprised to see that after 1 week of very close calls nobody has collided.
Last, I would like to explain the title of this post, Cháu Chào Gà! One of our funniest moments so far has been my meeting their grandmother. Needless to say my Vietnamese is horrible. I have been getting quick briefs of what to say in certain situations, and this time it's simply "Hello Grandma". Cháu Chào means hello and Bà means grandmother. I accidentally said Cháu Chào Gà, and have come to learn Gà means chicken. "Hello chicken?!" We all laugh about it every I time visit their grandmother... :) The next post will include beautiful pictures from our trip east to Ha Long Bay. Stay tuned!